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ZombiU review: Survival horror makes a bloody comeback

Sick of zombie games? This might just win you back

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One time we were surrounded by zombies and backed into a corner. Knowing death was imminent; we decided to sacrifice our current character. We dropped a grenade at our feet, knowing it would wipe out all the zombies nearby, as well as ourselves, making recovering the backpack much easier for the next survivor. Another time we managed to open a fast travel point moments before we were eaten by zombies, saving the next guy a long, dangerous walk.

Of course, there's a negative side to this. Sometimes you'll die in an awkward place, or among a huge group of zombies, and recovering your equipment just won't be worth the risk. We had to reluctantly leave a pack behind that was full of shotgun ammo because it was lying at the bottom of a pit filled with enemies. Skill points, earned by killing zombies, are also reset. If you're feeling especially brave, a one-life hardcore mode makes it so that if you die, it's game over.

Another interesting way the game is structured is that it's almost like an open world. You can travel freely around the city between missions to scavenge for supplies - albeit with loading breaks as you move from map to map. Between missions we often revisit areas, scour them for items, then bring them back to the chest in our safe house. This means that if we die, the next survivor can use them to help them reach our zombified corpse more easily.


Each section of the city is linked, so you can walk anywhere - or use a fast travel tunnel if you've unlocked it. The world isn't massive, but it's exquisitely realised. It's not the caricature of London you're used to seeing in games: it feels like a real, lived-in place. There's a good mix of locations, from the dreary residential areas around Brick Lane, to the Queen's palatial private underground bunker. The atmosphere is superb, and the soft, natural lighting is stunning. One section takes place during a raging storm, and you can barely see in front of you as you battle undead Royal Guards and Beefeaters in the rain. Then, suddenly, Buckingham Palace looms out of the downpour, surrounded by upturned ambulances and abandoned machine-gun nests. It's really gorgeous in places, although they do go a bit overboard with the lens flare effects.

The art style is so bleak that it's almost completely stripped of colour, but that only adds to the realism and feeling of dread that pervades every fogbound street and dingy tunnel. When it's dark, it's dark. You can't see a thing, and have to rely on your torch. In true video game style, its batteries run dry after about 100 seconds, but it recharges so quickly that it barely matters. One tense section takes place in the maze-like dungeons beneath the Tower of London. There's no light at all, and the zombies linger silently in the shadows waiting to pounce on you.

There's a story, but it's pretty minimal. Escaping the city is your overall goal, but most of the time you're dealing with smaller matters: a generator running out of fuel or a distress signal. You'll meet other survivors, but as you might expect in the middle of an apocalypse, not everyone wants to help you. It's an oppressive, dangerous world, and you never really feel safe. Even if your pack is stuffed with cakes and shotgun shells, all it takes is one mistake to lose them. Zombies can kill you with one hit if they grab you, and believe us, they will, repeatedly.


You'll notice that we haven't talked about how the GamePad works yet. That's because, compared to everything else, it's the least interesting thing about the game. Another survivor called The Prepper - who guides you by radio and teaches you how to survive - gives you a device he calls a Prepper Pad, which looks almost identical to the Wii U GamePad. This has limited uses at first, but as you upgrade it at certain points in the story, it becomes a really powerful tool.

When you hold the GamePad up to your TV, your character holds up their Prepper Pad. It shines a light on the environment, and on the screen you can scan the world for loot, enemy locations, and unopened doors. When you return to the game, everything you scanned will be marked on the HUD. The GamePad also displays a map, although you have to scan CCTV hubs to reveal them, otherwise the screen is blank. Finally, you can send out a radar ping that reveals the locations of anything that moves: which includes enemies and harmless animals.

The radar upgrade is perhaps the most useful. When you get it, the GamePad will constantly be pinging the level for movement. It basically turns it into the tracker from Aliens. When it picks up movement, it emits a noise. This can be nerve-wracking if you're low on health or ammo and suddenly you hear the bleep and see a crowd of zombies on the mini-map. Other upgrades include the ability to hack and bypass electronically locked doors and a UV black light to reveal hidden messages. If your Wii U is online, some of these messages will be left by other players, Dark Souls-style. You'll have to decide whether a message is a genuine attempt to help you, or has been left by a mischievous player to try and lure you into a trap.

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